After the pre-Christmas miracle of a clean sheet at Newcastle, Claudio Ranieri was defiant in the face of an ignorant journalist’s question. Told that the side who is bottom of the Premier League always goes down, the Fulham boss adamantly insisted ‘it is not true’. He is, right, of course, although there are only three examples of this (West Brom in 2004, Sunderland in 2013 and Leicester City in 2014). Perhaps still buzzing from securing a point on Tyneside, Ranieri added: ‘We’ll be safe at the end, don’t worry.’
The Tinkerman has yet to settle on a regular line-up since replacing Slavisa Jokanovic in November, although Saturday’s attritional draw with a Newcastle side who failed to register a single shot on target was probably a direct result of Ranieri’s switch to a three-man central defence. Tim Ream, Alfie Mawson – who survived a punch on the nose from Sergio Rico in the first half – and Denis Odoi delivered a display of defensive excellence that has been missing all season to provide some much needed resilience at the back. The big question confronting the Fulham coach over his Christmas dinner will be whether to stick with a back three and match up with Wolves, or to add an extra attacker in order to put the visitors under some pressure this lunchtime.
Ranieri’s side haven’t won since his first game in charge – a dramatic five-goal thriller against Southampton a month ago – and remain rooted to the foot of the table. Despite that, the Italian has pointed to greater positivity in the wake of the draw against the Magpies – revealing that result had helped to lift the training ground. It might be a worry that Fulham’s ability to threaten opposition defences has been lacking in recent weeks as the Whites have failed to score in six of their last nine league games. Aleksandar Mitrovic has looked horribly isolated lately, although he will point to the fact that his late shot at Newcastle might have nestled in the far corner had it not struck the arm of Jamaal Lascalles. There is certainly something in Cyrus Christie’s suggestion that Fulham need to display more of a killer instinct if they are to stay up.
Teenage winger Ryan Sessegnon has been passed fit again after missing the last two games through a groin strain. He would most naturally return in the left wing-back position in place of Joe Bryan in Fulham’s new-look system, although the England under-21 international has looked most at home in the Premier League in a more advanced position. He famously scored the first goal against Wolves at the Cottage last year as the Whites went on that 23-match unbeaten run to the end of the season. Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa will be missing until the New Year at least, which should allow Arsenal loanee Calum Chambers to continue his recent resurgence as a deep-lying midfielder.
Ranieri was raving in his pre-match press conference about Wolves’ storming performance against Liverpool last Friday where they were unfortunate to be beaten by Liverpool after giving Jurgen Klopp’s league leaders a real scare in the first half. Nuno Esporito Santo’s men started Premier League life like a runaway train, even taking the game to Manchester City in another accomplished performance against one of the league’s top sides. They came from behind to beat Chelsea and, despite picking up a single point from their last eighteen, will pose a serious threat this afternoon.
Santo’s side have continued to play the sort of ambitious and eye-catching football that characterised their romp to the Championship title last season – if anything, kicking on in these more rarefied surroundings. The mighty Willy Boly has been been a rock at the heart of the back three with Conor Coady, converted into a centre half by Santo last season, equally as impressive. Morgan Gibbs-White, a World Cup winner with Steven Sessegnon with the England under 20s last summer, has shown glimpses of his prodigious talent and the unheralded Raul Jimenez has proven a real livewire in the opposition penalty area,
Wolves are likely to be without Diego Jota, who has recently looked like he has found the answers to replicate his devastating skills in the Championship again in the top flight, but Fulham should be equally wary of Adama Traore, whose blistering pace caused such alarm at Middlesbrough last year. Traore posed real problems for the Liverpool defence at Molineux on Friday night and will be licking his lips at the prospect of taking on Fulham’s leaky defence.
MY FULHAM XI (3-4-2-1): Rico; Odoi, Mawson, Ream; Christie, R. Sessegnon, Chambers, Seri; Cairney, Schurrle, Mitrovic. Subs: Bettinelli, Le Marchand, McDonald, Johansen, Vietto, Ayite, Kamara.